The British government has released a nine-volume file on an influential film critic who some believe was “one of the most important spies the Soviet Union ever had”. Cedric Belfrage was born in 1904 in London and read English Literature at Cambridge University in the 1920s. While a student at Cambridge he made a name for himself as a reviewer of motion pictures, and by the early 1930s he was known as Britain’s highest-paid film critic. Soon afterwards he moved to the American city of Los Angeles, where he became a film and theater correspondent for British tabloid newspaper The Daily Express. But a multivolume file on him compiled by the British Security Service (MI5) and released last week by the National Archives in London, confirms that Belfrage spied for Soviet intelligence under the codename BENJAMIN.
According to the file, Belfrage turned to communism after witnessing the effects of the Great Depression in the United States. After a 1936 trip to the USSR, he reached out to the Communist Party of the US, which eventually put him in touch with a number of Soviet intelligence operatives in America. In 1940, the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) set up the British Security Coordination (BSC) in New York. It was a clandestine propaganda project aimed at turning local public opinion in favor of America’s entry into World War II. Belfrage was one of many writers and intellectuals that were recruited by the BSC to help counter the prevalent isolationist sentiment in the country. The film critic worked for MI6 until 1943, and then returned to Britain to join another wartime propaganda outfit, the Political Warfare Executive.
At war’s end, Belfrage returned to the US, only to find that he had attracted the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI had discovered that the British film critic had dealings with the Communist Party in the 1930s and suspected that he may have worked for Soviet intelligence. Further investigations revealed that Belfrage had indeed conducted espionage under the guidance of Jacob Golos, a Ukrainian-born American who managed a large network of pro-Soviet spies in America in the interwar period. But when he was questioned by the FBI, Belfrage said that he had given Golos a number of British —not American— government documents under direct orders by MI6. The latter allegedly hoped that the Soviets would reciprocate the move within the context of the anti-Nazi alliance between the UK and the USSR.
Eventually, Belfrage was brought up before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of the US Congress in 1953. The Committee was conducting public hearings aimed at unmasking suspected communist sympathizers in the American entertainment industry. But the British-born film critic refused to answer questions put to him, prompting HUAC to recommend that he should be deported from the country. The government adopted the Committee’s recommendation and deported Belfrage in 1955 for having been a member of the Communist Party under a fake name. Belfrage traveled throughout the Caribbean and Latin America before settling in Mexico, where he died in 1990, aged 86.
Interestingly, the British files reveal that MI5 decided not to prosecute Belfrage, most likely in order to avoid the embarrassment of admitting that British intelligence had employed a Soviet spy. The decision was probably not unrelated to the public scandal that followed the escape of the so-called Cambridge spies to the Soviet Union. Interestingly, Belfrage studied at Cambridge at the same time that Kim Philby (Soviet cryptonym STANLEY), Donald Duart Maclean (HOMER) and Guy Burgess (HICKS) were students there. But there is no evidence he ever collaborated with them, as he was not interested in politics at that time.